Ukrainian women are serving as paramedics and machine gunners in record numbers

Hanna Khurava, a medic with the Ukrainian military, treats Dema, 37, a soldier wounded in a Russian attack on July 1 in Perelzne, a village near the embattled city of Lysychansk. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
Hanna Khurava, a medic with the Ukrainian military, treats Dema, 37, a soldier wounded in a Russian attack on July 1 in Perelzne, a village near the embattled city of Lysychansk. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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BACHMUT, Ukraine — Alina Mykhailova slept on the floor of an empty warehouse, the only woman among dozens of soldiers getting as much rest as possible after days of fighting. She awoke to the sound of an explosion, so common on the Ukrainian front that she didn’t bother most of her weary companions.

“I had a strange feeling about it,” said Mykhailova, a medic in an army assault company, and she was already getting dressed when she got the call: a Russian missile had hit the unit.

Mykhailova rushed to the location and found a soldier with gashes in his stomach. They loaded him into the converted Volkswagen Transporter for the rough hour-long drive to the hospital. “Every time we hit a bump, he would groan,” she said. “I realized there had to be shrapnel moving around in his body and severing the organs.”

Weeks later, she recalled that the patient’s blood pressure had plummeted, so she improvised a treatment, packing gauze into the wounds to keep the sharp metal from moving dangerously and slashing vital organs. At no time during the war was her transformation more striking: from studying political science as a vegetarian in Kyiv to becoming a combat medic at the front.

“I was just a girl who liked to snowboard,” she said while sitting in her ambulance, hearing the sounds of artillery everywhere as she waited for the next call as the death toll from Russia’s devastating attacks along the Eastern Front soared. “But I’ve decided I have to be here.”

The front-line units fighting Russia’s push to take control of the entire Donbass region are overwhelmingly male. But when the men are wounded, a woman often jumps out of the ambulance.

According to Kateryna Pryimak, co-founder of Ukrainian, women now make up about 22 percent of Ukraine’s military, a rise that began with the Russian-backed war in the east starting in 2014 but has surged since Russia’s massive invasion four months ago, and the veteran movement of women .

“Since February, the number of women signing up has been growing and growing,” she said.

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Hanna Khurava has seen a large increase in the number of women serving in front-line units since she became a medic in 2016. Back then, women served primarily in support roles and cooked in the units’ kitchens. “Now I see female drivers, mechanics, medics, machine gunners, commanders.”

A few weeks before Russian tanks rolled over the borders, Khurava married the soldier who drives her ambulance. “Nice place for the honeymoon, isn’t it?” she asked, looking at the sandbags that were dumped in front of the hospital in Kramatorsk, where she took many of the injured.

Her new husband tried to dissuade her from enlisting on the front lines, telling her it was his time to take risks and her time to be safe. She told him that swapping the rings changed nothing.

“I said, ‘If you’re on the first bus out, I’ll be on the second bus,'” she said.

On Friday, the couple worked a 24-hour shift in a village west of the embattled city of Lysychansk. Their ambulance was parked under a tree to protect it from Russian drones, next to a bomb shelter covered in logs and earth.

It had been quiet until a Ukrainian Grade Artillery battery erupted in smoke and thunder directly over a village pasture. A Soviet-era mobile rocket launcher, the Grad can fire a salvo of up to 40 122mm projectiles and then sprint away before the Russians can lock in and return fire.

Within seconds of the barrage, a whistling bang sounded and a huge plume of smoke rose from the Grad launch site. And another. And another.

“We fire the Grads and then the Russians hit back,” Khurava said as she donned her flak vest.

In fact, 20 minutes later, a group of soldiers screeching stopped at the ambulance. They were carrying a soldier with a flat wound on his forehead from one of the blasts.

“Come back to have the bandage changed,” she said to the soldier after patching him up.

Women who travel to the most dangerous parts of the war say they encounter resistance, often from male partners, parents and older soldiers who see their own wives, sisters and daughters in the young medics’ faces.

“Right now I’m basically lying to my parents,” said Liana Nigoyan, a 24-year-old paramedic deployed from Bakhmut. “They think I’m working at a good job opportunity in Kyiv.”

Nigoyan was a nurse at a clinic in Dnipro when the war started. She was a paramedic volunteer in 2016 and immediately signed up for the Army Medical Corps.

But four months later, she still worries it would be too upsetting for her heart-stricken father to know she’d exchanged the sterile calm of a private practice — “Everything was white; all was quiet” – for a routine of crouching and counting to eight after an artillery hit before sprinting to the next patient.

The shift was tough for her too. Her first victim on the battlefield, a soldier shot by a sniper, died in her ambulance. The pressing reality of her new job has hit her hard, she said. She was steeled for the second call, a machine gunner hit by shrapnel.

“We saved him,” she said. “One of the other guys in the department, a veterinarian, helped me.”

Dozens of subsequent calls have taught Nigoyan, unable to find body armor small enough to fit her properly, to exude confidence over soldiers who are larger, older, and more battle-hardened.

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“If I have to be strict, I can be too,” she said, recalling a wounded soldier she overruled when he asked her not to cut off his pants out of modesty in the presence of a woman. “It helps me relax them so I’m sure of what I’m doing.”

Irina Pukas, a 13-year veteran of the Army Medical Corps, said she has honed a blend of maternal care and combat credibility to be a more effective medic for soldiers, who are often younger than their own adult sons.

Your artillery unit was badly hit by Russian shelling a few weeks ago. After treating the injured and securing the dead, she was asked to help a group of soldiers who were so terrified they refused to remove their vests and helmets even after they were escorted to safety.

“I tried to relax them both as a mother and as a soldier,” said Pukas, 48. “It helped that I’m a woman and also that I could tell them that I myself had been seriously shot at many times .”

Life at the front means going back and forth between war life and personal life. On an afternoon between frontline operations, two medics rushed outside a hospital in Sloviansk to be with a friend when her friend and soldier proposed to her.

“He comes back from the front and told her to be here at three o’clock and put on nice shoes,” said Maria Budnichenko, 20, one of the paramedics. Her friend, who was waiting on a bench, wore glittery slippers with her green work clothes.

The soldier, on one knee, popped the question a few minutes later in front of a cheering crowd of his comrades.

“It’s a war, but love goes on,” Budnichenko said.

Back in the bumpy ambulance, Mykhailova, who wears a pair of Trauma Sheers on her flak vest and a Glock 9mm pistol on her hip, needed all her experience to keep her patient with internal injuries alive. At the hospital, they woke up doctors who took the wounded to the hospital for a six-hour operation.

When the doctor came out, she asked, “Who packed this man’s wound so full of gauze?”

Mykhailova recalls panicking before raising her hand; that had been her impromptu treatment.

“Nice work,” said the doctor. “It’s one of the reasons he’s alive.” Ukrainian women are serving as paramedics and machine gunners in record numbers

Dustin Huang

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